The Washington Nationals got a lot better this offseason with the addition of several key pitchers. Add several healthy players to the mix, including Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Zimmerman, and Adam LaRoche, and the Nationals could be a force to be reckoned with this season. The Nationals deficiencies in the leadoff spot continue to be a point of major concern, however. They had five players lead off in more than 50 plate appearances in the 2011 campaign, and all of them will join the Nats in Viera this spring. The list includes Roger Bernadina, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Rick Ankiel, and Jayson Werth.
Roger Bernadina was supposed to be the guy to turn the page for the Nationals in the leadoff and center field spots, but that hasn’t panned out for the team. Bernadina is the longest tenured Nationals/Expos player, signed as a free agent way back in 2001, and his time in DC may be over soon, despite being just 27 years old. The Shark was simply dreadful when hitting first last year. In 238 PAs, he posted a .209/.283/.288 slash line. He walked just 19 times and struck out on 48 occasions in that spot. Combine that with his poor route running in center field, and despite his above-average speed, his time may be numbered with the organization.
Ian Desmond is the guy that Nationals fans, and it seemed the Nationals front office, hoped would fit into the leadoff spot. However, his efforts in that role left quite a bit to be desired. Though a marked improvement from Bernadina, Desmond’s .281/.318/.412 line isn’t what you want to see from a leadoff guy. He matched Bernadina’s 48 Ks in fewer plate appearances and walked just 10 times in that spot all season. Desmond improved significant defensively over his 2010 season, but it is unclear whether that is enough to keep him with the team long term. He is routinely connected to trade rumors that would bring a permanent center field replacement to the organization. Desmond is one of just three players leftover from the Expos days with Bernadina and Atahualpa Severino, and that’s not exactly the company you want to be in at the moment.
Rookie second baseman Danny Espinosa had a huge start to the season, prompting the organization to try its luck with Espinosa in the leadoff spot for almost 90 plate appearances. That experiment ended quickly, though, as he posted a .173/.236/.309 slash line when leading off. He struck out in just about a quarter of his at-bats, and just never seemed comfortable. The thing that makes Danny Espinosa so valuable isn’t really his offense, though. It’s his staggeringly impressive glove at second. He can hit for tremendous power from time to time but struggles in a big way against right handed pitching. Considering that batters face righties about 2/3 of the time, it’s an issue that needs to be fixed. Even if he does improve against righties, it seems unlikely that Espinosa is a fit in the leadoff spot. He is much more valuable in the bottom half of the order.
Rick Ankiel probably won’t even be an every day starter for the Nats in 2012, which shows how much they’ve improved from last year when he started 90 games. When given the opportunity to lead off, he hit .273 with a .313 OBP. It’s well below ideal for a leadoff hitter, and his defensive deficiencies add to the reasons why he is poor choice to play everyday. His arm is tremendous, but his range leaves much to be desired, especially as a center field candidate. As a platoon or extra outfielder, though, his value increases significantly.
Finally, Jayson Werth was atrocious in 57 plate appearances when penned into No. 1 hole in the Nationals batting order. He hit .163 and reached base at a .281 clip. Werth’s value is in his ability to get some RBIs and protect others in the lineup, and putting him first in the order never really made a whole lot of sense. The Werth experiment was mostly a case of Jim Riggleman grasping at straws to get something going, and it’s hard to blame him. The team’s offense struggled mightily at times last year, and the leadoff spot has been an issue for the Nats year in and year out. It was a short lived experiment that likely won’t be continued this year.
Unfortunately, even with the great moves this offseason, the Nationals haven’t added anyone to fill the void, and the same players from this list will likely compete for the right to lead off for the team. Barring any trades, Desmond is likely to find himself in the No. 1 spot as the season starts, with some occasional adjustments if he struggles. If he could cut down his strikeouts and take just a few more pitches, Desmond could prove to be an above-average leadoff hitter. He has good speed and can steal bases well when he reaches. It’s certainly not ideal, but he’ll be an able stopgap until the team is able to land a true leadoff hitter. Who knows when that may be?